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Ventura County Crime Lab Puts Adversity in the Past

Law enforcement: After two years of problems, the sheriff's forensic scientists and supervisors have forged a turnaround toward gaining accreditation.

July 12, 1999|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a long journey back to credibility for the Sheriff's Department crime lab staff, which has spent the past two years fighting to overcome what amounted to a public relations nightmare.

The low point came in July 1997 when a team of Ventura County defense attorneys argued for dismissal of 673 drunk-driving cases after revelations the lab was not certified to handle blood-alcohol tests.

In the end, only seven cases were dropped. But while the problems boiled down to mistakes made by one criminalist in the lab's alcohol unit, the reputation of every scientist suffered.

"It's sad that a lot of employees were colored by the action of just one person," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Dick Purnell, who oversees the lab. "What people heard about was one small portion of the lab, involving just one person. And while all that was happening, we had people in other areas working hard, solving cases."

Today, the lab's 20 forensic scientists and supervisors say they have grown stronger through their adversity.

Their latest project is an effort to pass a strenuous national accreditation process that would make it one of only seven in California approved by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

Earlier this month the lab was given approval to open the doors to its $215,000 DNA unit. The lab is already up and running, working on samples for four sexual-assault cases.

Also, $175,000 has been spent on updating equipment. To ease the burden on overworked personnel, five additional employees are on the way. And raises for current personnel, who are the second-lowest-paid criminalists in the state, also have been approved.

"All the changes wouldn't have come without the extreme dedication of this staff," said laboratory manager Renee Artman, tears welling in her eyes. "Dedication--this is a word I cannot assign a dollar amount to. It's invaluable."

Artman, a 14-year member of the lab staff, was named head of all forensic services last month--a position reinstated after an eight-year absence. The position of forensic lab manager had been eliminated in 1991. Until Artman's appointment, most supervisory duties fell to sworn sheriff's personnel, usually a captain with no technical training.

"I think the primary goal was to put someone with a scientific background in charge of the lab," said Artman, a Polish immigrant with a master's degree in pharmacy who began training in the lab as a part-time employee after moving to the United States more than 14 years ago.

"I think maybe it was sometimes difficult on [the captains] to make some of the decisions about things they may not understand," she added.

Despite the work to improve the lab, Public Defender Brian Vogel remains unimpressed by the changes.

Vogel was one of two main defense attorneys who sought to have numerous drunk-driving cases dropped after problems with the blood-alcohol unit. Vogel says it does not matter how much money and work go into improving the lab, and that all forensic evidence should go to an outside lab--not one run by the sheriff.

"It's a mistake to allow law enforcement to be in control of what should be impartial science," Vogel said. "I'm very concerned about that. There's no way to know in this case what the quality of work is like over there. It shouldn't be that way, but it is."

Even before the lab's problems became public two years ago, officials knew the lab needed improvements. Authorities became concerned after the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

"It was really the first highly publicized case where it was the lab on trial, not the suspect," Brooks said. "It was becoming a new growth industry for defense attorneys to attack labs. So we began asking how bulletproof our lab was."

Then came the negative attention surrounding the blood-alcohol unit within the local department's own lab shortly after the Simpson trial. In the aftermath, lab improvements became a priority.

"Probably the fact that we were all over the newspaper had some influence," Artman said. "I wished it had never happened. But some of the changes were probably a result of that situation."

The concerns prompted a meeting between lab supervisors and sheriff's officials, including Chief Deputy Richard Rodriguez, who oversees the lab's annual $947,000 budget.

Among the problems cited: low morale, poor pay, heavy workloads, an overcrowded lab and outdated equipment.

A plan was hammered out to make the lab one of the top in the state. The county has a long history of using science to go after criminal convictions.

Ventura County was the first in the state to successfully use DNA to obtain a murder conviction. Authorities in 1989 suspected a woman named Lynda Axell was responsible for a hamburger stand worker's death. Hair samples sent to a New York lab proved that long, dark strands of hair clutched in the victim's hand belonged to Axell.

In fact, Ventura County has been using scientific sleuthing to solve crimes for more than 30 years.

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